Excerpted and adapted from The House of Early Sorrows: A Memoir in Essays, forthcoming from Fordham University Press (Spring 2018).
On the morning my husband and I begin a road trip to Maine with our two young sons, he pulls me back into the house, into the kitchen.
“I have something important to tell you,” he says.
“Can’t it wait?” I ask.
“No, it can’t,” he replies.
Our young sons are sitting on the back seat of our car, excited, expectant, and settled in for a very long ride with coloring books, chapter books, a box of Legos (a bad idea), treats, and water. They love holidays. They’re good travellers, far better ones than their parents, who carp and quibble about every little thing—what road to take, what restaurant to stop at, whether it’s time for a photo or a rest stop break, what time the kids should go to bed, whether the surf is too dangerous for a swim—until one of them would say what, under ordinary circumstances, and in an ordinary family, a parent would say: “Would the two of you just cut it out?”
We’d decided I would do most of the driving; my husband, as he admitted, was a very bad driver. He’d get bored, start looking at the scenery when he should have been looking at the road ahead; he’d fumble in the console that separated us for one of the lollypops he’d helped himself to from the supply our bank kept to give children to quiet them while their parents were dealing with complicated transactions; he’d turn his head and look into the back seat to tell our sons a joke, and, when I’d poke him and tell him to look at the road, he’d say I had no sense of humor, I wasn’t a good sport.
So here I am, standing in the kitchen, waiting to hear what’s so damned important. I want to get on the road. I want to get where we’re going. I have big plans for this holiday: resting while my husband takes care of our kids, relaxing, playing games, cooking good food in the cabin we’re renting, introducing the kids to lobster, and doing some writing for a novel about adultery I’ve been planning for years, ever since my husband’s affair early in our marriage. It wouldn’t be, I’ve told myself, an act of revenge. It’d be a way of settling a score, of leveling the ground between us.
So there he is, my husband, standing in the kitchen needing to tell me what can’t wait. And what he tells me is that there is another woman in his life, but that I shouldn’t worry because he isn’t sleeping with her, he’s merely entranced by her, and that he’s already stopped seeing her. He’s decided that, this time, honesty is the best policy, and that he can’t face our holiday without coming clean, without letting me know.
“Really?” I say.
He tells me he’d never again do anything to jeopardize our marriage, the way he did that first time when he was in medical school, when he’d found a blondish woman with curls piled atop her head to cavort with while I was home caring for our new, and constantly crying baby. As if by telling me that this time he was only entranced by a woman and not sleeping with her, he isn’t already jeopardizing our marriage.
Here we go again, I say to myself. But there is a holiday to take, kids that I don’t want to disappoint, a problem to solve in my marriage, and so I decide I will take all the time I need over this holiday to decide what to do. And I’ll try not to let our kids know that there’s trouble between us.
“Aren’t you going to say anything else,” he asks after a few minutes have passed.
“Get in the car,” I say. “We have a long way to go.”
So now it’s hours later, and we’re settled into our not-so-terrific cabin, and we’ve unloaded and unpacked the car and shopped for food and had our first, simple meal—a pasta with red sauce, some steamed green beans—and the kids have been washed, put into their pajamas, and settled into their lumpy beds.
My husband and I sit out on the porch, in the rickety rocking chairs. We haven’t talked all day, apart from what’s been necessary to perform our household tasks.
“I want her phone number,” I say. “I want the three of us to get together to discuss the terms of the dissolution of our marriage, who gets what, who lives where, the joint custody of our children and our numerous animals (snake, guppy, cats, dog, hamster).
“I want her to know what she’s getting herself into,” I say. “It’s only fair.”
“But I told you I’m not leaving you,” he says.
“I understand,” I say. “But I might leave you. Let’s just call this a prophylactic encounter.”
A month later, and we haven’t had that meeting. I’ve called her. And called her. Left messages. But, not surprisingly, she’s never returned my calls.
But my husband is in therapy, trying, he says, to deal with this crisis. Will I give him some time to resolve this? Of course, I say. I’m not going anywhere. I’m busy writing my novel, chuckling to myself in my study as I work. I’ve turned my husband into a woe begotten insurance adjustor, a man who has to travel to the scene of ghastly accidents, cars that careened off dangerous roads, tractor trailers that slammed into passenger cars, motorboats that rammed into each other, while his wife is in New York City having one erotic encounter after another. And he has no idea what his wife is doing.
My husband tells me he’s making good progress in therapy. He’s avoiding her. He’s beginning to understand why he behaves this way. I don’t have to worry. It is something about having had an adoring mother, he says. It’s something about your being an asshole, I think.
Was I pissed off? Certainly. Was I worried? Sure. But this time, I have a good job, a good salary, we own a house in a joint property state, and, unlike the first time he almost leaves me, I know I can take care of myself, and I’d begun to think I might be better off without him. And best of all, I am writing this novel.
I can tell you without equivocation that Maine is the wrong place to go on a family holiday if your marriage is in trouble. For aside from eating lobsters, and picking wild blueberries, and looking at the water crash against the rocks, and rocking in a rocking chair on a front porch, there isn’t anything to do but hang out with the people you came with. Which is fine if you’re happy. Which we weren’t.
I was driving our car along one of those winding Maine roads by the seacoast to our miserable little cabin heated at night by a wooden stove. We’d had a good enough lunch of lobster. We’d taught the kids how to eat them. We’d pretended to act like it was an ordinary family holiday. But the kids knew. The kids always know.
As we came to an especially dangerous stretch of road, Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” came on the radio. And my husband started gazing out the window with a look I had come to recognize as the I’m pretending to look at the scenery but I’m thinking about the other woman kind of look.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Oh,” he responded after a few seconds, “just looking at the scenery.”
I knew he wasn’t looking at the scenery, because he didn’t look at the scenery ever, not even when, years before, we’d driven through the Alps, or the along the French Riviera, or through Provence, or along the Mediterranean coast.
I pulled over to the side of the road.
“Get out of the fucking car,” I said.
The kids started crying. They knew it was going from bad to worse.
“What do you mean?” he asked, all innocence.
“Don’t bullshit me,” I said. “You’re still seeing her.”
Whereupon he started shouting. And I started shouting. And the children started crying even harder. And he got out of the car.
So there he was, walking alongside the road, my husband, whom I hated intensely. And there was a cliff. And so I decided to run him over. Or to use the car to ever so gently nudge him over that cliff so he’d smash onto the rocks below.
I was very clear about this. I wanted him dead, and I had the means to make it happen. I was thinking it through, gauging which would be better—running him over and squashing him, or watching him plummet to his bloody and mangled death below.
If I killed him, it would have been a crime of passion. But, no, it would have been premeditated murder. And so, a capital crime, punishable by life imprisonment or the death penalty if Maine had the death penalty: “Murder aforethought.” I realized that had he been the one to run me off the road onto the rocks and I’d have died, he’d have an easier time of it than I would. A man who kills his wife gets off easier, you may have noticed, than a woman who kills her husband because he’s committed adultery.
I can’t say what stopped me, because I fully intended to kill him. Perhaps I recognized the consequences of my intended crime. Perhaps it was my children in the back seat of the car, crying. Perhaps it was the thought that when I returned to that horrible cabin, I would make homemade blueberry muffins with the kids from the gorgeous berries we’d picked earlier in the day.
For throughout that difficult sodden lunch (it had been raining), all I could think about was making those muffins. I hoped that, somehow, they might rescue this disastrous holiday. I saw myself with the kids in that horrible kitchen in that disgusting cabin, redeeming the holiday by mixing the muffins, baking them, smelling their aroma, and sharing them with the kids, but not with him.
But perhaps it was this, too. From when we set out on our holiday, as I drove the long, curving stretches of highway heading north, with my husband asleep in the front seat, my kids asleep in the back, I’d started thinking about how one way of my getting through this time was to write at that novel about adultery. But I wouldn’t write about him. I would write as if I were writing about me. I’d create a fictional persona, a woman very much like me but not altogether like me, who is on the brink of having her second affair. This, I thought, would be a very good way to make him pay. For he would never know, and I would never tell him, whether or not this story was based upon my life.
So there he is, my husband, the adulterer, walking along the side of the road, and there I am, the wronged wife and almost murderer at the wheel of our car, pulling up alongside him.
“Get in the car,” I say.
“No,” he says.
“Get in the fucking car,” I say, “I want to go back to the cabin and make blueberry muffins with the kids.”
And he got back in the car. And as we drove along the seacoast road, on our way to that godforsaken, disgusting cabin, I did my best to memorize what it looked like here, for I knew I’d never come back, that Maine was forever tainted for me, which wasn’t so bad, because I hadn’t much liked it to begin with, because a gritty city street appealed to me more than the beauties of nature. And I wondered, too, whether the cabin had a muffin tin, and whether I’d have to scrub it clean, or, in the more likely event that it didn’t, whether there was a general store close by where we could buy one
Louise DeSalvo began the MFA Memoir Program at Hunter College where she was the Jenny Hunter Endowed Scholar. She has published the memoirs Vertigo (winner of the Gay Talese Prize), Breathless, Adultery, Crazy in the Kitchen, On Moving, and, recently, The Art of Slow Writing and Chasing Ghosts. The House of Early Sorrows is forthcoming from Fordham University Press in Spring 2018. She is currently working on a memoir about cancer.